Whitmer settles landmark ‘right to read’ suit, promises legislation

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After an almost four-year legal battle, Detroit Public School Community District students have secured their right to a quality education. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday she signed a settlement agreement to end the “right to read” lawsuit, Gary B. v. Whitmer. 

On April 23, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Detroit students who filed a 2016 lawsuit against the state of Michigan claiming their right to a “basic minimum education” was being infringed upon. 

The suit, which originally named Gov. Rick Snyder as the defendant, demanded Detroit students have “access to literacy by ensuring that they are provided with evidence-based, grade-appropriate programs for literacy instruction and intervention and monitoring conditions that deny students access to literacy such as lack of teachers and deplorable school conditions.” 

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Whitmer became the defendant when she became governor in 2019. As a gubernatorial candidate, Whitmer sided with the students. But in May 2019, Whitmer argued that the state should not be a party in the lawsuit and has fought it since. 

Her spokesperson, Tiffany Brown, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about why the governor waited to settle the suit. 

As part of the settlement, Whitmer agreed to propose legislation that would give DPSCD with at least $94.4 million for literacy programs, provide $280,000 to the seven student-plaintiffs to access “high-quality” literacy program or otherwise further their education and provide $2.7 million to DPSCD to fund literacy-related efforts. 

However, that legislation has to pass the GOP-led Legislature. Complicating matters further, Michigan is preparing for an expected budget shortfall of up to $7 billion across two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Also as part of the settlement, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) will advise school districts across the state to improve access to literacy and literacy proficiency using evidence-based strategies, initiatives and programs, with a focus on reducing class, racial and ethnic disparities. 

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“Students in Detroit faced obstacles to their education that inhibited their ability to read – obstacles they never should have faced. In the future, I will remain committed to ensuring paths to literacy for children across Michigan. Today’s settlement is a good start, but there’s more work to do to create paths to opportunity for our children,” Whitmer said in a statement Thursday afternoon. 

She said she “looks forward” to working with the Legislature on efforts.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) spokesperson Gideon D’Assandro said that as of Thursday afternoon, the speaker had not yet reviewed the settlement. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) spokesperson Amber McCann did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The governor said two Detroit-based task forces, the Detroit Literacy Equity Task Force and the Detroit Educational Policy Committee will be created to help ensure a quality education for students and will give the state future recommendations.  

The Detroit Literacy Equity Task Force will be created outside of state government and will be composed of students, parents, literacy experts, teachers, a paraprofessional and other community members to conduct yearly evaluations around literacy in Detroit.

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The Detroit Educational Policy Committee will either be created by the governor or she will authorize an already existing body to focus on the stability and quality of the overall educational ecosystem in Detroit, the accessibility of a quality school to all children in Detroit and school improvement, facilities, teaching and educational materials. 

State leaders, lawmakers and educators praised the governor for her settlement. 

American Federation of Teachers Michigan President David Hecker said the case is a “landmark victory for students and families in Detroit, across Michigan and through the country by setting an important precedent that the right to education and literacy is fundamental.”

Terrence Martin, president of DFT Michigan, said in a statement that “educators are used to having to fight for their students, but having students step up and be their own advocates is inspiring and a testament to the power of the public school community in this state. Gov. Whitmer did the right thing settling this case and we thank her for coming to the table and helping make this settlement possible.”

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.), minority vice chair of the House Education Committee, said “the landmark settlement is an amazing victory for students.”

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“We know that literacy is the tool that unlocks potential for all Michigan children,” Camilleri added in a statement. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the settlement is a “step in the right direction.”

“The city of Detroit strongly supported this litigation as an amicus because literacy is a right that every child should have the opportunity to attain. We are very supportive of the Governor’s actions today in committing to ensuring that every child in Detroit has a fair opportunity to learn how to read and write,” Duggan said.